Public History

HSS 502

David S. Barnes

Many scholars find it challenging to explain and present their work to nonacademic audiences. Moreover, too few of us are aware of opportunities to put our academic skills to work in the service of improving the communities around us. This seminar considers ways of addressing these challenges through an examination of the many varieties of public history (and public humanities more broadly). The course includes hands-on projects in the Philadelphia area—that is, as “hands-on” as circumstances will allow. 

Four primary themes orient the readings, discussions, and assignments of the course:

  • Commemoration and Public Memory: What roles do public monuments, memorials, and other static forms of commemoration play in civic life in the 21st century? Is there a meaningful place for such commemorations? How can they better represent the contested civic values of our changing societies, and how can they better educate a variety of publics?
  • Places and Presentation: How can museums, historic sites, and other arenas in which audiences encounter history become more relevant and appealing to diverse audiences?
  • Authority: Who produces history for the public, in whose name, and based on what principles?
  • Engagement: How can history and related disciplines make a difference in the world, on small, medium, and large scales? 

We wrestle with these themes through close exploration of two central topics: (1) the history of epidemics and public health and (2) the history of racial injustice and racial empowerment struggles. The focus of the research components of this class is primarily on these histories and public memory of them in Philadelphia, although readings and discussions cover other cities and countries extensively.

Fall 2020